Interesting times for sheep producers

Writers Posted 12/11/20
It is reasonable to think that we have a fairly convincing case for some government support for maintaining our domestic welfare and food standards.

As if sheep producers across the UK had not had an “interesting” enough year to date, the events of the week beginning Sunday 11 October made things a lot more “interesting”. I refer to events that should have made sheep (livestock) producers across the UK sit up and take notice, although sadly, I suspect, simply passed many by.

Results from a recent public opinion poll by Save British Farming show that 78% think we have high welfare standards for our farm livestock, 81% want welfare standards maintained or strengthened and 68% want some legal protection for those standards. In addition, 92% thought that welfare standards should be maintained within any third-party trade negotiations and 74% were opposed to imports of foods produced to low welfare standards. Add to this the 95% that thought that our high food standards should be maintained and the 86% who are concerned that currently banned food imports may, in the future, be used in schools, hospitals etc.

Given those figures, it is reasonable to think that we have a fairly convincing case for some government support for maintaining our domestic welfare and food standards; plus the additional considerations that we ought to be giving to environmental and carbon reduction measures. The case is further strengthened when one adds in the overwhelming public support for the campaigns by NFU and other farming organisations to gather support for the agricultural industry and British food.

All things considered, it would not seem unreasonable, in a democratic country, to have expected a positive response and reciprocal support from government when the Lords amendments to the Agricultural Bill came before Parliament. Sadly, the confidence and expectations of farmers took a severe battering, when, first of all, there was an almost complete lack of any support for the proposal to establish the, currently temporary, Trade and Agriculture Commission as a permanent body, and for proposals to reinforce the position of welfare, environmental, carbon reduction and food standards; it is only food standards that have any existing legislative protection.

Both those measures were targeted at improving the scrutiny of future trade negotiations and helping to protect British producers from being undercut by cheap, poor quality imports of agricultural products; imports that, potentially, could be produced employing systems, standards of production and materials that are deemed illegal in the UK. When the debate moved to a vote, however, in spite of all the rhetoric, the amendments were rejected by a government majority of 53, with only a disappointing 14 Conservative MPs voting in support of UK farmers.

The second key issue was the declaration by the Government at the end of the week that as there had been no significant changes in the EU’s negotiating position, further talks would effectively cease and the country should prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

Both of these issues are rather more complex than the impression conveyed by large sections of the media, who do tend to be rather partisan and like to inflate their own views; more informed comment is readily accessible and available via a quick internet search for those who want a rather more balanced view. Some pundits are, however, suggesting that in this sort of scenario, unless adequate support, financial or otherwise, is provided to enable farmers to maintain legal standards of welfare, environment and food safety, we could see the future viability of up to 25% of UK farm businesses put at risk.

As damaging as the implications may be for the sheep sector, they currently remain only as potential threats; there is always the possibility that everything could change once again. Sudden and abrupt changes of direction, some would say U-turns, are almost becoming an integral part of political life. However, the fact that things are still very much unresolved, with a relatively small window remaining to arrive at some positive settlement, does not mean that all will be well in the end (the apparent default position for many).

It is in nobody’s interest to simply ignore the possible risks. We should all be exploring possible strategies to address the potential impact of a worst-case scenario; panic is not a reasonable strategy. The future of the sheep sector still depends on decisions made, by government, over the next few weeks. In spite of all the rhetoric and promises to support farmers, we all know that the success of Brexit, in whatever format that may be, will be judged by the impact on the UK economy and on the trade deals that follow our departure from the EU. Unfortunately, there is very little in recent experience that would support too much optimism; the majority of government has now, somewhat desperately, boarded the bus to post-Brexit trade deals, deals at any cost, and farmers appear to be among the casualties, thrown under the bus.

On a more positive note, tupping is now well underway for many, with early reports seeming to indicate that things are progressing at quite a pace. Ewes seem to have gone to the ram in good condition, in spite of several months of drought conditions and an absolutely dreadful summer for grass growth in much of the South East (Kent and Sussex in particular). For some, particularly those that have used teaser rams, ewes have taken the ram at an alarming rate; the first week of lambing could be very busy; even without teasing we had 50% cover within seven days of the tups joining the ewes.

Sheep do seem to enjoy (trying not to be anthropomorphic) and thrive in, hot, dry weather, something that no doubt belies their Middle Eastern origins, but they do need to have adequate supplies of feed in front of them. The period between weaning and tupping is, in terms of lambing performance, the most critical in the sheep cycle of production; failure to get ewes in the right condition at this point in time, (BCS 3.0 to 3.5) may cost dearly in terms of poor lambing performance next spring, and costs saved now can be very expensive in the long run.

Some producers needed to resort to providing a bit of supplementary feed for ewes in order to achieve the correct condition for tupping, while others were rather more fortunate, with the welcome rain arriving just in time to produce a decent wedge of autumn grass on which to build condition and flush ewes. Unfortunately we fell into the former camp, which means additional costs, but you do what you need to do. As usual some breeds seem to cope better than others with adverse conditions, but to avoid accusations of bias I will say no more.

At least we have had plenty of rain recently. Some would say too much (but that’s farmers), and all the time it remains warm enough to maintain soil temperatures above 7°C, grass growth will continue, all being well building up enough of a grass wedge to carry sheep into or through the winter; our target is always to all grass winter. Unfortunately for some, grass has been slow to recover, largely as a result of the hammering it received over the summer; grass is, in general, a remarkably resilient crop, but there are limits, and I know that some have needed to resort to over-seeding or reseeding the areas that have been impacted the most and really struggled to recover. On the positive side, this offers a potential opportunity for some to improve swards, particularly on permanent pasture. I have certainly taken the opportunity to stich some improved grasses and herbs into some of the thinner patches, and the ewes will no doubt benefit next spring.

Good luck with tupping, even if the future market for those lambs being conceived is uncertain. Consider your options, plan for the worst and hope for the best; who knows, we may see a few more U-turns and everything might, just might, turn out alright.

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